Conservation in the News

As a recent graduate, I have been thinking a lot about my future in the field of art conservation. Any career in the arts and museums is tough, but it is particularly difficult when the general public does not know that your field exists. I love telling people about conservation because they are usually so fascinated by it and want to learn more. In my experience, there is a genuine interest in the field and people seem to understand the importance of conservation (once they know what it is!).

Damage on the Picasso from the Menil Collection

It has been particularly intriguing to see how conservation is covered in the news. A month ago, the New York Times wrote an article about a conservator at Brown University who found a piece of paper signed by Paul Revere. This article, though creating a romanticized notion of conservation, nonetheless brought attention to the field. (If you’re interested, the UIUC Rare Book and Manuscript Director wrote a response to this article.) The New York Times has also recently published two conservation-related articles on its front page (see here and here), as well as the Wall Street Journal (see here and here).

This brings me to the most recent scandal from the art world: the vandalism of the Picasso in the Menil Collection in Houston. A museum patron catches a man defacing a Picasso, using a stencil to spray-paint an image of a bull and the word “Conquista”. There were two particularly appalling things about this video: the suspect claims to be doing this to “honor Picasso’s work” and the “stunned” man who filmed this thought it was “pretty cool” that someone vandalized a painting. I don’t think Picasso would feel honored, nor would he think it was cool.

What I did like, though, was that the museum was able to take the painting down the hall to the conservation department so that it could immediately be treated. I am not in favor of defacing works of art to draw attention to our work, but I think it is important for conservators to take this opportunity and show the public exactly what we do.

Luckily, since the painting was immediately taken to the lab, spray paint removal should not be too difficult. The first thing to do would be test the spray paint and determine the chemical composition. Then the conservator can decide which solvents would best remove the chemicals. The spray paint has not had time to sit and become ingrained into the paint layer, and I’m sure the conservator has seen much worse!

I feel like I see conservation in the media more and more (I recently saw a crime show where the perpetrators stole an obscene number of van Gogh’s from an art conservation firm and stored them in horrible, non-archival tubing. I could just see the paint flaking off!). While it’s very encouraging to see conservation in the media, it is not enough to simply be mentioned now and again. I think the theme of the latest AIC conference, outreach, speaks to that. Every conservator I have met is extremely passionate about their work, and I know that as we continue to educate the public about the importance of our work, the public will begin to share our passion for–and our insistence on the importance of–conservation.

Conservation work on Jefferson’s Bible

Though I was not able to attend the AIC Annual Conference in Albuquerque this year (due to final exams!), I have been so pleased to be able to peruse the AIC website and read about all of the presentations. One that caught my eye was conservation work performed on Thomas Jefferson’s Secret Bible. Janice Stagnitto Ellis, Senior Paper Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History, along with Emily S. Rainwater, Post Graduate Fellow at NMAH and Laura A. Bedford, Assistant Book Conservator at NEDCC, worked on this 200-year Bible.

The Bible, entitled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English”, has the most fascinating history, which is summed up quite well in an article in the University of Virginia Magazine. Jefferson was raised to be quite religious but questioned some aspects of Christianity as he grew older. He did not believe in miracles but was a devout follower of Jesus Christ. In 1804, he decided to create his own Bible by cutting out all references to miracles in the New Testament and pasting them together He then took these 84 pages to Frederick Mayo, a bookbinder in Richmond. The compilation is known today as Jefferson’s Bible.

The Bible went to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History to be conserved in 2011. The conservation work is, I am so happy to say, detailed on a site dedicated to the Bible, as well as in a three minute video.

What an exciting project! I particularly loved learning about the organic and inorganic analyses. I’m so sad I missed this presentation but the conservators really put a lot of time and effort into giving the public as much access as possible to the work, through the website and video. Given this year’s AIC conference theme, outreach, hopefully we will see more and more institutions doing the same thing.

Chicago-Area Lab Tours

Living about two and a half hours away from Chicago, it’s sad how rarely I go to the city! A couple weeks ago, though, I had the opportunity to go to Chicago with some of the lovely ladies of the Oak Street Conservation Facility. We were on the road bright and early with only one thing on our mind: conservation!  I was so excited to spend the whole day touring one conservation lab after another.

Our day started at Northwestern Library’s Conservation Department. I had never been to Northwestern before and the campus was truly idyllic; it felt like a magical forest, a bit foggy with lots of trees and little paths. We made our way to the basement (of course!) to the lab. Tonia Grafakos, the head of the lab, gave us a tour. It was surprising to learn about the differences between Oak St. and Northwestern — for one, their collection of backlogged books that need repair is much smaller than Oak St.’s! We had the opportunity to see their neat collection of international Obama memorabilia, which ranged from paintings in barber shops to lollipop sticks to gum wrappers. The conservation department always gets to work with the most interesting and strange things!

Given our long drive up to Chicago, it was already time for lunch! We stopped at a cute place called Tapas Barcelona, right down the street from Northwestern. They really had great tapas, especially if you love goat cheese like me!

The next stop was the Art Institute of Chicago. We had the opportunity of touring the prints and drawings and book labs. As expected, the labs were beautiful. I couldn’t get over how much counter space there was. We looked at all sorts of projects, one which included piecing together a five foot print that had been cut into 56 individual pieces. It was incredible to see how the conservator, Kim Nichols, put it all together, carefully studying the pieces and how the artist worked. It has taken her four years and she’s almost done!

University of Chicago’s Mansueto Library

Our third lab was the University of Chicago’s Mansueto Library. If you haven’t already, check out some pictures of this gorgeous library! Airy and spacious is an understatement. This lab was pretty different from the ones we had toured earlier, especially given its environment. Ann Lindsey, the head of the lab, gave us a tour of the space and details about the decisions she made in designing the lab. This was really useful in learning more about the equipment and which aspects of the lab are used for different types of projects. We also had the opportunity to see the automated storage and retrieval system, which is located underground. The materials stored in this area are actually controlled by robots — the materials are placed in metal trays; when a patron requests an item, the robot brings the whole tray up to the library desk, at this point a library employee finds the item from the tray. It was really neat to see this huge space totally run by robots — crazy! It also made me thankful to think that a robot could (most likely) never take over my job as a conservator — hopefully the work is too detailed and involved for any robot.

Automated storage and retrieval system

Our last stop of the day was at an open house for the Graphic Conservation Company. This was a great opportunity to see how a private conservation firm works. I was surprised at how big it was — a big open room with plenty of long tables. Against the wall there were board shears, presses, and other equipment. One of the big projects at Graphic was the 13th Amendment, which took six months to conserve. You can read more about the project in this Chicago Tribune article.

After a very long day, we headed down to the U of I. After seeing so many different types of labs, I felt even more confident that I wanted to go into conservation. Having spent many months looking for a job/internship, I was starting to get discouraged that it would be too hard to break into the field. Meeting so many great conservators across the field and learning about their work was refreshing. It gave me more perspective — there are plenty of labs out there with lots of work, I just need to be patient!

Disaster Response Workshop

A couple months ago I attended a disaster response workshop for cultural institutions, particularly libraries and museums, sponsored by the U of I’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Though I’ve been introduced to disaster response before, it was nice to get a more formal background. The workshop lasted three hours but the speaker gave us many links so we can learn more online.The first part of the workshop was a lecture where we learned about how to prepare for a disaster and then deal with the disaster as it is occurring. The second part of the workshop was a tabletop exercise where we split into groups and discussed how we would deal with a particular scenario.

Here are some takeaways from the workshop:

  • Before the disaster
    • Mitigation
      • keep a log of places that disasters have occurred: when and why.
      • work with the facilities department to maintain good practices
      • identify potential threats
    • Preparedness: Top 10 Things to Do Before a Disaster Strikes:
      1. Prepare a disaster/emergency plan that covers people and collections
      2. Survey your building for risks
      3. Have a communication plan (i.e. phone tree, email)
      4. Prepare a first response action list that includes your emergency response team
      5. Organize emergency contact information for all staff (including volunteers and interns)
      6. Establish salvage priorities
      7. Create collections disaster supply kits
      8. Understand your insurance coverage and funding options
      9. Establish collaborative relationships (like at other institutions)
      10. Train staff in response and recovery
    • For  more information, you can find a disaster preparation and prevention checklist here.
  • During the disaster
    • Life safety — make sure all humans are safe!
    • Incident stabilization
    • Property preservation (i.e. collections salvage)
    • Recovery
      • Returning facilities and services to normal
      • Conduct an assessment
      • Stabilize the environment
        • stop water at source
        • lower temperature and humidity
        • mop up or pump out standing water
        • maintain security
      • Emotional response
        • be kind
        • take breaks
        • be aware of changes in behavior
        • talk it out — debrief after an event

One of the interesting things in this workshop was to listen to other peoples’ experiences with disasters. When I worked at the Spurlock Museum, a small cultural heritage  museum at the U of I, I found a huge pest infestation in a large cabinet of baskets. We immediately started bagging all the baskets in the area and had to do a thorough investigation of where the pests came from and how long they had been feasting. If you have a disaster story, please share!

For more information about this workshop, please visit this link! If you have more online disaster resources you would like to share, please post a comment below.


Hello and welcome to Notes from the Bench! In this blog, I hope to share my experiences in the field of art conservation. Since I discovered the field four years ago, I have immersed myself in learning more about it by taking lab tours, attending lectures, and doing internships. I would like to document these experiences and share them with others who might be interested.

Thank you for visiting!